When looking at influences on any aspect of my life, including my faith, it’s not surprising that my parents are pretty significant. My mum goes to church and my dad does not but both of them have had an impact on my faith.
Tractor Girl asked a few posts ago for my reflections on the SCM Liberating Gender Conference. I re-realised during that conference quite how atypical my upbringing was in terms of looking at gender. My parents, my mum in particular, were very big on challenging stereotypical gender stereotypes. I was dressed in pink, given dolls to play with, read children’s books with strong female heroes (‘Rita the Rescuer’ was apparently a favourite) and generally being taught that there was no difference between what boys did and what girls did. This made the SCM conference very strange for me as I realised that, although I recognised the stereotypes people talked about really didn’t ring true for me. Whilst I could grasp the workshop which talked about boys toys being very muscly and full of big guns, that didn’t marry with my own childhood experience where I wasn’t even allowed a playmobil fort!
This I suppose has informed my understanding of God and of humanity. I was brought up to not really see gender roles, and so the idea of a genderless God wasn’t such a stretch. Obviously, I went to school in the ‘real world’ and became gradually more and more aware of gender differences and my parents influence was diluted. But the basic understanding remained – that there is not set difference in what girls and boys do.
Also, with the strong non-violent influence (I was given dolls were because many of the ‘boys toys’ were all too violent), peace and non-violent philosophies and theologies are also second nature to me. I was always taught violence solved nothing and that lesson applies now just as much to how I view global conflict resolution as it did when it was my Mum telling me not to hit my brother.
My mum and I are very similar in lots of ways and I think that’s reflected in our approach to our faiths. Like my grandfather, and like me, she places a lot of emphasis on a stimulating sermon but she also likes her quiet space for contemplation. It’s from her that I first got an appreciation for Taizé worship (even if I only properly got to like it when I left home to go to uni).
Dad describes himself as ‘spiritually blocked’ which I find quite a useful image. He says he just doesn’t get faith; he can engage with some of the ‘theory’ of religion and with the traditions and rituals but doesn’t believe in or understand God. He comes to church at Christmas and Easter and came whenever we were involved in services as children. But he’s coming for the rest of the family and the occasion rather than anything more. I think my Dad is one of the influences that make me sceptical about evangelism. It seems to me that some people just don’t see life in a way that involves God and I have a certain respect for that.
I thought I’d take a short break from the trawl through the influences on my faith to look at how I think and feel about an important element of Christianity – the Bible.
I suppose in lots of ways I have mixed feelings about the Bible. I find it hard to read on my own– very few sections flow as a narrative and I don’t find much of what it says particularly ‘useful’ or relevant to my life. When reading lots of passages, I find it too easy to be put off by the ‘face value’ meaning of the passages.
I know enough about biblical studies/theology to know that the face value reading of a text, while sometimes helpful, is often only a small layer of the richness in a passage. I know there are interesting and illuminating contexts and cultural (and scriptural) references. The problem I have is that, I’m no theologian or biblical scholar and so know very little about the linguistic, historical and cultural context to what I’m reading. The result is I’m left unfulfilled by Scripture when I read it.
The main time the Bible comes alive to me is through preaching. To hear someone reflect on a passage and tease out meanings I’d not seen brings it to life for me. But I think, as preaching seems to be a running theme in my reflections, I should come back to it another time.
Unlike most of my Christian friends, until I came to university I didn’t really have any Christian friends. I had a close group of schools friends who ranged from strident Dawkins-esque atheists to indifferent agnostics. It will not surprise people who know me that I have some fairly opinionated friends. We ‘discussed’ politics, religion and the meaning of life many times. It was during this time that I discovered what I believed, pretty much by deciding what I was not. I was not the Christian ‘straw man’ that they loved to criticise and/or mock. I was also not quite like my friends in how I saw the world. And as quite often happens when you’re a teenager, I started to define my faith by how I differed to other people.
My school friends are all wonderful people I admire each of them in lots of different ways. They are some of the most selfless people I know with very strong senses of justice. These atheist friends embody Christian values. These people who I grew up with shaped my vision of what is important to me, probably more than anything I learnt in church. It’s just that for me, unlike my friends, those values are linked to my faith.
Of all the churches I’ve been involved with, you’d expect my first one, where I spent most of my childhood until I went to university, to be one of the most influential. Having thought about it… it seems not!
It’s not that I dislike the church and its congregation or feel like I had a bad time there. I don’t really know why but I never quite felt like I fitted in. I started going to church there aged 7, when we moved to Bristol and Mum decided she wanted to go back to church. I went through Sunday School there and made friends with some of the other young people. Most of my friends gradually disappeared and I didn’t have an awful lot in common with the ones who were left by the time I was a teenager. I went through confirmation classes there but spent a fair amount of the time feeling that how I understood and related to God totally different to the people I was going through them with.
I think I could probably count on one hand the number of times when someone there said something I found interesting, inspiring or even relevant. The preaching (once I stopped going to the ‘young people’s group’ of the Sunday school) was for the most part fairly uninspiring, not usually anything I disagreed with, just not that interesting. Thanks to the Methodist system, there were a few interesting local preachers who’d lead worship once every few months but they felt like the exception rather than the norm.
Whenever I go back there now, I still feel like I felt about it as a child. That’s probably less to do with the church and more to do with me. There’s something about a group of people who’ve known you since you were a child that always makes you feel like a child. And that probably stops me being able to make a proper judgement on what it’s like now…